Around the age of ten, George said goodbye to the Carvers and walked the eight miles to Neosho, Missouri, to attend school. He was taken in by Uncle Andy and Aunt Mariah Watkins, a childless African American couple who treated him as their own. George paid his tuition and helped with the finances by working odd jobs around town, such as cooking, weeding, grooming horses, chopping wood, sewing, mending and doing laundry.
After learning all he could from Schoolmaster Foster, George decided to hitch a ride with a family traveling to Fort Scott, Kansas, where he boarded in a lean-to behind the stagecoach depot, then later under the back steps of a home. He worked as a cook and attended school, but fled suddenly after witnessing a lynching.
Carver continued through school in Oletha, Kansas, then at Paola Normal School, finishing High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.
George attended a business college in Kansas City, where he learned shorthand and typing, and worked as a stenographer for the Union Telegraph Office.
He then went on to receive both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Iowa State College.
In His Own Words
(excerpts from letters Carver wrote to friends and colleagues)
. . . at the age of 10 years, I left for Neosho, a little town just 8 miles from our farm, where I could go to school. Mr. and Mrs. Carver were perfectly willing for us to go where we could be educated the same as white children. I remained here about two years, got an opportunity to go to Fort Scott, Kansas with a family. They drove through the country.
[The Carvers] encouraged me to secure knowledge, helping me all they could, but this was quite limited. . . . This simply sharpened my appetite for more knowledge. . . . From here I went to Oletha Kans. to school. From there to Paola Normal School, from there to Minneapolis Kansas where I remained in school about 7 years finishing the high school, and in addition some Latin and Greek. . . . After finishing high school here I made application to enter a certain College in Iowa. I was admitted, went but when the President saw I was colored he would not receive me.
From here to Kansas City entered a business college of short hand and typewriting. I was here to have a position in the Union telegraph Office as stenographer & typewriter, but the thirst for knowledge gained the mastery and I sought to enter Highland College at Highland Kans., but was refused on account of my color.
I went from here to Western part of Kansas.
While attending church in Winterset, Iowa, George met John and Helen Milholland, who encouraged him to continue his education, pursuing art and music at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. One of his paintings, The Yucca, received an Honorable Mention at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
I remained here until spring and went to Winterset, Iowa, as first cook in a large hotel. One evening I went to a white church, and set in the rear of the house. The next day a handsome man called for me at the hotel and said his wife wanted to see me. When I reached the splendid residence I was astonished to recognize her as the prima dona in the choir. I was most astonished when she told me that my fine voice had attracted her. I had to sing quite a number of pieces for her and agreed to come to her house at least once a week; and from that time till now Mr. and Mrs. Milholland have been my warmest and most helpful friends. . . . This same Mr. and Mrs. Milholland encouraged me to go to college. It was her custom to have me come at the day and rehearse to her the doings of the day. She would invariably laugh after such a recital and say, “Whoever heard of any one person doing half so many things.” She encouraged me to sing and paint, for which arts I had passionate fondness.
Iowa State College:
. . .then entered the Iowa State College, at Ames, Iowa, where I pursued my Agricultural work, taking two degrees, Bachelor and Master. After finishing my Bachelor’s degree I was elected a member of the faculty, and given charge of the greenhouse, bacteriological laboratory, and the laboratory work in systematic botany. I cannot speak too highly of the faculty, students and in fact the town generally. They all seemed to take pride in seeing if he or she might not do more for me than some one else. But I wish to especially mention the names of Miss Etta M. Budd (my art teacher, Mrs. W.A. Liston & family, and Rev. A.D. Field & family. Aside from their substantial help at Simpson, were the means of my attendance at Ames…).
I received the prize offered for the best herbarium in cryptogamy.
Every year I went to school, supporting myself by cooking and doing all kinds of house work in private families. . . . In one years time I had saved sufficient money to take me to Simpson College, at Indianola, Iowa where I took art, music and college work. I opened a laundry here for my support. After all my matriculation fees had been paid I had 10 c worth of corn meal, and the 5 c I spent for beef suet. . . For quite one month I lived on prayer and beef suet and corn meal. Modesty prevented me telling my condition to strangers.
I would never allow anyone to give me money, no difference how badly I needed it. I wanted literally to earn my living.
I knit, crochet, and made all my hose, mittens etc. while I was in school.
Carver was relentless in his pursuit of academics.
- To support himself, Carver did whatever it took to make ends meet, which meant that he held various jobs during his matriculation. Do you think he was helped or hindered in his academic pursuit considering his need to work during this time to support himself and pay for his tuition?
- Federal School-to-Work legislation promotes career tracking from the primary grades. If Carver were born today, do you think he would have the same opportunities, experiences, and successes he attained then afforded to him now?
- How does his relentless ambition inspire you in your own pursuits?